Introducing the ‘story cone’ method for character creation

Thursday night UK time, I attended a four-hour (!) workshop on ‘Cracking the Story Code: Character and Structure for Riveting Stories’This was an introduction to the Farmer System of Narrative Analysis (FSNA). I’d never heard of it before and – thus – figured I might learn something. At worst, my husband had agreed to babysit my youngest son, who is currently erupting a mouthful of teeth.

Not sure what I made of the session, really. It was interesting, but I left with a lot of questions too. Sadly, there aren’t many places to find additional free information. It sounds like Katherine (Katie) J. Farmer, who devised the FSNA (‘Story Cone’) method for story analysis is writing a 700-page textbook during retirement, but the associated Patreon appears to be dormant. The session was presented by Amy White, who is Chief Operations Officer for Second Sight Studio, an FSNA training organisation.

Predicting a story’s success

According to Amy, Katie began developing the FSNA method in 1969, during her master’s degree. She was studying children’s theatre and started looking into why there weren’t many good children’s plays. This turned out to be a communication problem. Kids like stories that empower the little person; adults like stories that will ‘improve’ kids. Katie went on to study a collection of 400 critically- and popularly-acclaimed children’s books and conducted a survey of librarians spread across ten geographical regions of the USA.

She discovered that critically-acclaimed children’s books in the USA weren’t necessarily appealing to American children. Moreover, out of the 68 story factors she studied, only six affected a book’s quality, appeal or age appropriateness. These related to theme, plot, pacing and characters, and led her to create a method to analyse and predict what makes a story ‘successful’.

Characters Maketh the Story

The FSNA theory is that characters make a story. Plot is just the mould that holds the story together.

Plot is like a jelly mould, filled with the jelly of character.

Stories have 10 character roles – seven essential, and three secondary. Each of these roles must be filled for the story to be ‘successful’, i.e. appealing to readers.

Most successful stories have one character who plays at least three roles in the story.

When a story isn’t working, this is because character roles are missing, poorly developed, duplicated or disappear from the story before the end.

The six essential roles

The primary roles in FSNA are:

Primary Actor (PA) – the character who the story is about. They are the ‘mover and shaker’ in the story, and their personality colours the action (in some films, literally).

Central Viewpoint Character (CVC) is the point-of-view character through whom we experience the story’s action. The example given was Bridge to Terabithia (a film I’ve never seen) where Jesse tells Leslie’s story. One reason to have a separate PA and CVC is because the story is a tragedy, and the PA dies. 

[Editor’s Note: A classic example of a CVC is Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes]

Initial Equilibrium Disrupter (IED) is the being, or force, that creates the inciting incident. According to Amy, 92% of successful stories contain an IED. The IED can be an event, such as Princess Leia giving the plans to R2D2 at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope.

Because the Zombie version is simply better… [Film Poster: Pride + Prejudice + ZOMBIES]
System Character (SYS) is the character who embodies the system that makes the rules in that setting. Successful stories have a powerful character, such as Darth Vader, in the SYS role. SYS characters don’t need to be entirely hostile. Another example is Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.

Primary Norm Breaker (PNB) is the character who challenges the system and breaks the rules – intentionally or otherwise. They keep the action moving forwards. So, in Pride and Prejudice (WITH or without ZOMBIES), this character is Elizabeth. In many stories, the PNB, CVC and PA are the same person.

Primary Noise & Chaos Creator (PNCC) is the character or group of characters who create day-to-day disruption to the other characters. They can be characters against who the PNB struggles to test, and demonstrate, what sort of person they are. The PNCC can be the PNB in some stories, or can serve some other role. The example from the workshop was Stormtroopers (all Star Wars films) and the storm in The Martian. However, the zombies in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies also play that role. 

Hero (H) – comes in multiple different types, including: the traditional hero (who saves the day for everyone); the romantic hero (a SYS-inclined character and a PNB character who compromise a little for the win); and the rogue hero who saves only themselves (but in a charming way).

There are also three secondary roles:

Characters aligned with the PNB;

Characters aligned with the SYS, and;

Obligatory picture to liven up a section of running text. And lightsabers (from Wikipedia. Lucasfilm)

Safe Character (SC) is a character who plays by the SYS character’s rules, but who supports the PNB. They usually act as a mentor and, when they die, the PNB is no longer safe. Obi-Wan Kenobe is the Safe Character in Star Wars: A New Hope. The age difference between the SC and the CVC determines the age range that will enjoy the story.

Dead redshirt (literally) (picture from Wikipedia (C) 1968 Paramount Pictures)

Finally, there are Tertiary Level Characters who are basically backdrop. Think ‘redshirts’ in Star Trek.

Plotting with the Essential Characters – Three-Act structure

The ‘three-act structure’ is a common tool for plotting novels and stories (example here).

Using FSNA analysis, the conflict between the Primary Norm Breaker and System Character is like a piston in a car that drives the ‘ascending’ action (the upward-trending line on the graph).

The peak (‘climax’) of the graph is the ‘Hero Climax’ where the Hero‘s actions define what kind of person they are.

The ‘falling’ or ‘descending’ action defines the emotional tone of the story, and leaves a positive or negative impression for the reader.

Three-act structure for a story where the primary norm breaker, primary actor and point-of-view character are the same person.

Types of Story

Katie’s research apparently identified how the character roles create stories that feel emotionally different. Each pattern of roles evokes, at a subconscious level, an expectation of how the story should end.

In a COMEDY, for example, the Primary Norm Breaker (PNB), System (SYS) and Hero (H) characters ALL WIN. The viewer or reader leaves the story feeling happy with the way things turned out.

In the film Groundhog Day, for example, weatherman Phil is the PNB – he doesn’t quite fit in. As with most comedies, according to the FSNA theory, he’s also the Primary Actor (PA) and the Central Viewpoint Character (CVC). Phil needs to change himself to get together with Rita, who is aligned with the SYS. This helps to complete the story [NOTE: I haven’t seen this film – this was the example given in the seminar]

In a DRAMA like the Shawnshank Redemption [NOTE: also a workshop example], the SYS LOSES, but everyone else WINS. Andy, the PNB, wins by escaping and leaving evidence behind that the Warden did something illegal. Red, the Safe Character and CVC, is paroled and meets up with his old friend. The Warden, representing the SYS, meanwhile, loses his career.

A TRAGEDY is similar to a drama, but the PNB and the the PA are the same person. They take on a situation without knowing the facts, thereby creating an Inciting Incident, and the result of their decision is to end up dead or in exile. The SYS WINS, everyone else LOSES, and the reader or viewer leaves the story feeling sad.

SATIRE in FSNA analysis is a story that evokes disgust in the reader. It’s similar to a tragedy or a drama, but with a few key differences. First, unlike in a drama, the PNB creates the inciting incident. Unlike in a tragedy, the PNB WINS, but they do so by revealing a ‘dark side’ to their character that was hidden from the reader until near the end.

The workshop example was the film Secret Window. In this story, mass murderer and writer Mort Rainey gets away with killing numerous other characters. However, the viewer has no idea that he’s the murderer until the end. The purpose of a satire is often to ridicule or demonstrate corruption in a SYS, which LOSES – despite the darkness of the PNB.

Going forwards

Apparently, there are multiple other ‘levels’ to this theory. These include how the plot structure of stories are enjoyed by different age groups. For example, young children like stories with simple structures that build towards the end (the example given was The Gingerbread Man). Literary critics, meanwhile, often like complex stories with multiple subplots, POV characters and tales-within-tales.

Regardless, I was left with many questions about the applicability of the theory to writers. Most of the examples in the seminar were films – not books. Moreover, there was a strong focus on the conflict between a rule breaker (the PNB) and an oppressive ‘system’. Although this applies to 20th and 21st century western literature, it’s unclear how well it would apply to something like, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh (there are numerous examples from non-western literature too).

So, the jury’s out on how universal these rules actually are. However, as a different tool for ‘debugging’ stories, it’s worth giving it a shot.

[* Postscript: The trouble with slide decks

If you think ‘role functions’ is a complex way of describing ‘what the character does in your story’, then welcome to my biggest, single criticism of this workshop.

My day job is as a science and technology journalist/copywriter. Not sure whether it was simply that I was tired, but I really struggled with the graphics and terminology of the presentation. The ‘story cone’ diagram, in particular (not used here), was incredibly confusing to a lay viewer. Where necessary, I’ve drawn my own, less confusing, diagrams].

[Featured image: Pixar/Disney screenshot. I Googled ‘story cone’… and this is what came up]

2 comments

  • As I learnd it, this structure only applies to works written since about 1750. Before that, people wrote “tales” but not novels. That is, the “plot” would be “this happened and then that happened and then . . .” until the writer got tired and stopped. The notion that a narrative should have structure, with a protagonist who’s actually trying to accomplish something, didn’t really exist before Fielding’s Tom Jones, which seems to be generally regarded as the first novel.

    When I was reviewing short fiction, I was alert to “tales” and usually gave them 2 stars at most. They were pretty rare in the professionally published stories I was focused on, though.

    • That’s really interesting. I wonder whether it’s to do with storytelling format and technology.

      I guess oral storytelling tends to favour “this happened and then that happened and then..” because your audience is sat in front of you, and your job is to keep them entertained. Hence, if they look like they might be getting bored, you can always lob in a plot complication: “And then, just as the giant beast finally breathed its last, there was a terrible roar, and an EVEN BIGGER DRAGON appeared above the hills to the west.”

      Plays are slightly different because you’ve got to assemble a group of people to rehearse together and then to put on the play. You can’t let things overrun by multiple hours, or decide to unilaterally introduce a dragon that wasn’t in the practice session. That probably leads to more formalised structures to ensure the play remains entertaining, while finishing in a certain time. Certainly, Shakespeare was writing stories, not tales, before 1700, and the Oresteia are stories.

      Then there’s obviously the technological component because the printing press wasn’t in operation on a large scale until about 1500. I can definitely see it taking a couple of hundred years for prose fiction to appear in that format. You can see some of the intermediate stages with things like Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which are fictionalised narrative non-fiction.

      One of the interesting things is the earlier oral storytelling (certainly the Western European examples I’m most familiar with) seem to be in poem format, presumably because it was easier to remember. So, things like Beowulf. I don’t know if Beowulf counts as a long story, a tale, a collection of linked short stories, or an overarching narrative used as a tent pole to hang a bunch of short stories (basically, a precursor to TV series like Babylon 5).

      There were, incidentally, a couple of slides on types of plot structure in the FSNA workshop, but the session didn’t go into it in any depth.

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